San Dieguito to continue in distance learning model for second quarter

File photo
(File photo)

The San Dieguito Union High School District board voted 3-2 on Sept. 17 to continue in the distance learning model for the second quarter of the school year. As the California Department of Public Health guidance and San Diego County Public Health Order have not become any less restrictive since July when the board decided to start the year in distance learning, the district will continue with its current plan and work on incrementally bringing more students back and gradually getting all students safely back on campuses.

So far in the first quarter, the district has brought students back in specialized programs on seven campuses, including special education students, English language learners, high-risk students and students with inadequate learning environments. The board directed Superintendent Robert Haley to bring back language at the board’s Sept. 24 special meeting that will provide further definition on how the district can expand services to all students while following the guidelines or if the public health order changes.

SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer said she was interested in learning how they might get extracurricular activities up and running for all students, how they can use the larger venues on campus and outdoor spaces for off-screen activities and on-campus time while the courses remain in distance learning mode.

“I want kids back on campus in March 1 conditions as much as anybody. I just don’t see how we do it in our reality,” Hergesheimer said.

SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir and Clerk Melisse Mossy voted against the plan to remain in distance learning—Muir made a motion asking that the superintendent return with three or four plans to get all students back on campus but it did not receive a second.

SDUHSD Trustee Kristin Gibson said that the only way that it would be possible to bring all students back on campus is if the board decided which regulation they would waive: “How far away from the health order are the five of us willing to go?” The board was advised by SDUHSD Associate Superintendent Tina Douglas that if they go against any portion of the health order, they will not have insurance coverage and could be held liable.

“I personally don’t feel comfortable deviating from what the county has mandated. We’re in charge of the lives of a lot of important people and I would like for us to see a plan developed that incorporates the mandates,” said Mossy.

Mossy said she would also like to know what teachers need to feel comfortable being back on campus and said it is vital to survey the mental health of students to refer those who are not doing well to the appropriate resources. Mossy wanted to see in writing that the district is protecting students who are struggling, who simply cannot handle distance learning. “Just by saying we’re going to do distance learning is going to be extremely frustrating for families,” Mossy said.

Haley again stressed that the district’s decision making is guided by considering the health and safety needs of its students, families, staff and community as the highest priority.

“At times I’ve asked people ‘Let’s be thoughtful, let’s be flexible, let’s be compassionate.’ There’s not anybody I meet and interact with that I don’t believe wants the best for our students and for our community,” Haley said. “It’s just that we do have a variety of opinions and we do have authorities over us, the California Department of Public, the governor and the San Diego County Public Health officer.”

Using the best understanding of the current situation, Haley said a stable in-class experience under these guidelines “does not exist” for the district and they will continue to look to maximize the amount of students they can safely have on campus.

Haley said it is the guidance around cohorts and distancing that remain the most problematic. Regarding distancing, the guidelines state that: “Students must remain in the same space and in cohorts as small and consistent as practicable…Keep the same students and teacher or staff with each group, to the greatest extent practicable” and “Minimize movement of students or staff as much as practicable. For example, consider ways to keep teachers with one group of students for the whole days. In secondary schools or situations where students have individualized schedules, plan for ways to reduce mixing among cohorts and to minimize contact.”

The district’s classrooms average from 800 to 960 square feet: with six feet of distancing between students and between the teacher leaves room for about six to 10 students in a class. The guidelines also focus on minimizing the number of students that are on campus at a time—at a large school like Torrey Pines, 25% of the enrollment is still 600-700 students.

Reducing cohort mixing is challenging as all students do not have the same schedules and need to be changing classes— Haley said at best what they would be doing is distance learning at school.

Mossy was reluctant to commit to a distance learning-only model for the second quarter, without exploring what could be possible for San Dieguito and how other school districts are bringing students back.

No county public high school has yet to reopen for in-person school with strict adherence to the guidelines. Poway, Vista and Oceanside Unified are bringing back students in small groups like San Dieguito is doing now. Grossmont Union High School District plans to open on Sept. 28 in a “blended” model in which 25% of students attend on campus one day a week and continue distance learning for the remaining four days. Grossmont has presented a plan that ramps up to levels of 50% and 100% of students on campus one day a week.

In Grossmont’s plans, while the teacher desks are distanced at least six feet away, sites will only attempt to distance students six feet apart “as is feasible” in the classroom, utilizing outdoor areas and other venues. In their plan, student work spaces will be marked with designators so that different desks are being used each period and a desk is never used twice in a day.

Locally, the private Cathedral Catholic High School in Carmel Valley is doing an on-campus/online hybrid. They rolled out cohorts slowly and this week was the first that both cohorts will be on campus—150 students have opted to remain in distance learning with 1,500 students selecting in-person school, according to Ann Major, director of communications.

Monday through Thursday, cohorts of students are on campus two days a week and the other days students participate from home. Teachers use Swivl cameras in the classroom for synchronous learning. When students change classes, the release times are staggered and directional arrows keep students moving in one direction. Starting in October, one Friday a month each grade level will be on campus for activities, to collaborate with counselors, work with ASB or meet with teachers during office hours.

During the meeting, Muir expressed her frustrations with the superintendent—she wanted him to bring forward a plan to bring all students back to school.

“He’s had seven months to come up with a plan, that’s the problem,” Muir said. “He should’ve had a plan ready to go.”

Haley countered that her statement was incorrect, misleading to the community and he was “not going to stand for it.” He said that the board needs to give him direction about under which parameters to craft a plan: “Tell me which guidelines you do not want to follow,” he said.

None of the board members gave him that guidance.

The board members and superintendent said they have received hundreds of emails from parents on reopening with opinions that vary. In submitted public comments and those provided during the Zoom call, many parents asked for a return to in-person learning as soon as possible: “Even two days a week back on campus would be something,” wrote one parent who said their freshman son has become withdrawn and depressed and his grades are suffering. Another parent wrote that she had to quit her job to oversee homeschooling for her four children, who are starting to get headaches, blurred vision and are feeling isolated and disconnected from staring at a screen in their rooms alone all day.

Parent Heidi Niehart said students need peer connections and face-to-face interactions with teachers: “We must return to an in-person model as soon as possible. Anything less is a dereliction of duty,” she said. “Unprecedented times call for action, innovation and bravery.”

Several comments referenced that they were disappointed with the lack of communication from the district regarding its reopening plan—many questioning if there even was a plan.

“We understand that the fluidity of the situation and guidelines makes it impossible to have a single plan of action, but an articulation of a series of plans that might be undertaken would be a huge improvement over the current situation,” said parent Erin Graff Zivin, noting she would like to hear that solutions are being considered such as COVID tests for students, using a cohort model, utilizing tents for outside learning or using plexiglass glass dividers to allow for reduced distancing in classrooms.

Some parents commented that they supported the district’s “thoughtful” approach to reopening schools only when it is safe, demonstrating “smart, compassionate, science-driven leadership.”

“We all want to go back to in-person learning. That is not the issue. The issue is how do we return to campus based on science and facts and the requirements established by local and state health officials,” said parent Shannon Kearns Leshner. “How feasible is it for everyone to be on campus during a pandemic? These questions must be answered by facts and science and should not be answered based on how many emails parents send or how many conversations the superintendent has with parents and students.”

SDUHSD Trustee Kristin Gibson said she can sympathize with parents as she has a SDUHSD student at home that she also watches struggle on a daily basis with distance learning. As much as she wants students back at school, she has heard the drawbacks of other districts using the hybrid model, such as having students only being on campus two days a week with the other three days at home. Teachers in neighboring hybrid districts have also talked about the challenges of managing in-person and distance learning students at the same time.

Gibson said under the current restrictions she could envision a scenario where a cohort of students would come together on campus for one day a week for one in-person class. After that one class, all students would then put on their headsets and remain in the classroom for the rest of their distance learning schedules individually. That plan would get kids on campus for only a very limited time with the benefit of some socialization and access to a teacher, she said.

“I don’t see the hybrid as necessarily a win,” said Gibson, who has also heard feedback about the model from her San Diego State student teachers’ experiences in 15 different county districts. “I don’t like hearing that we don’t have a plan because in my opinion it’s a plan and we’ve already brought kids back and we want to continue to do that. We need to enlist our site administrators to help us make good decisions and to be proactive about who’s coming onto campus and when and under what circumstances.”

The district also faces unknowns as the county teeters on the edge of falling into the purple tier due to rising case rates. According to the California Department of Public Health if a school did not open while the county was in the red tier, that school will not be able to open for in-person instruction until the county has returned to the red tier for two weeks.